Flip Wilson made a fortune playing the character Geraldine and popularizing the phrase “The Devil made me do it.” It was funny, but it was a lie. The Devil has great power of influence but limited power of control. He doesn’t make people do things. He’s a tempter, not an absolute governor. God has blessed us with the gift of self restraint. I learned that from my Dad.
James Ellis (Speck) Johns was, as they say, an enigma wrapped up in a mystery, part Southern gentlemen, part good old boy, part Robert E. Lee, and part George Patton. Before he got saved in 1971 he could cuss up a storm when he hurt himself or things were not going the way he thought they should. But he would never use a foul word in front of a woman.
On one of our regular Saturday trips to the farm my Uncle Buddy asked Dad if he could borrow his tractor during the coming week to do some bush hogging. Now, Dad was quite particular about his tools and equipment. [“You take care of your tools; they’ll take care of you.”]
Dad responded to Buddy, “You’re welcome to use my tractor but I need you to take care of it and be careful to do a few things for me. First, don’t run it over third gear. It wasn’t made for this big a bush hog. Second, don’t try to mow down the palmetto bushes. Third, do you see this cross bar? You can’t raise the bush hog too high or the PTO drive shaft will rub against it and something will have to give. Can you be careful with that for me?”
“Yes, Ellis I’ll take good care of your tractor. You don’t need to worry.”
I knew the third gear promise was a no go. If Uncle Buddy was anything he was fast, fast in his car, fast on the tractor. On Friday nights you could hear the roar of his car for miles across the flat woods. I wondered if he would be careful with the PTO shaft.
The next Saturday Dad and I went to the tractor to take the bush hog off and he could see from a distance the shaft was marred. He began to mutter under his breath. Then things went downhill. The shaft was warped and welded so tight it wouldn’t come off the PTO. Murmurs became bad words followed by outright profanity. After twisting, pushing, and pulling a while he reached up under the tractor seat, retrieved a hammer and began to try to pound the two ends of the shaft apart.
Kneeling on his right knee, holding the shaft with his left hand, he began to hit it as hard as he could, cussing between every blow. What he didn’t see was my mother walking up behind him. She had apparently heard the commotion and came to check it out. I was slowly moving out of the line of fire when it happened. Dad missed his target and hit his hand right where the thumb and finger come together. He hit it so hard the indention of the hammer head could be seen in his flesh for years to come.
With one swooping motion he dropped the hammer, grabbed his hand, rose up on his left foot, began to spin counter clockwise, and let out a “God d…” The second word froze in his mouth as he caught a glimpse of Mom standing there. Spinning on his left foot, pushing off with his right foot like a broken propeller, the stalled profanity morphed into a rapid fire “help me Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, help me.”
Mom, standing with her hands on her hips and her head cocked a little to the side replied, “That’s right, You’d better be praying and asking God to help you clean up your mouth.” She turned and walked away without another word. No sympathy expressed. She, Dad and I knew her unspoken message, “You brought this on yourself, buddy boy, and God is right here in the midst of it.”
Later, when I was a young adult home from school, I was trying to explain to Mom why I couldn’t stay over an extra day and attend my cousin’s wedding. My excuse was pretty flimsy. The truth was I just didn’t want to go. Dad spoke with what I think was about his strongest rebuke for me ever. “Son, there’s no need to make excuses. The way I see it a man does pretty much what he wants to do.” That stung. The truth often stings.
The way I see it God has given each of us the grace to be able to choose good over evil. We have the gift of self restraint. Sin does not have the power to rule over us. We are responsible for the decisions we make. “The sting of sin is death and the power of sin is the law” (I Cor. 15:56). In sin we are not powerless to resist temptation, we are powerless to keep the law and fulfill righteousness. In Christ we are made righteous and empowered to resist all sin. “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:12-14).
I am thankful the Devil cannot make me do anything. I am free to choose. Good choices do not redeem me; they do not make me acceptable to God. They do bear witness to God’s grace expressed in His choice to offer salvation to whosoever will. I am thankful for the gift of self restraint. I don’t have to “dip, drink, cuss, smoke or chew, or go with the girl’s that do.”
February 20, 2010